THE ULTIMA EFFECT
Easily the most important series of the era was Richard ‘Lord British’ Garriott’s Ultima. The first, not including Garriott’s unrelated Akalabeth, came out in 1981, though it was re-coded and re-released five years later. It was an impressive game for the time, offering a top-down mode for exploring the world, a first-person wireframe dungeon crawling mode, and, for no particularly good reason except that he had space left on the disk, an outer space section where you shoot down TIE Fighters to be declared a ‘Space Ace’, and unlock a time machine that allows you to go back and kill the invulnerable villain Mondain before he has a chance to become so. This mixing of genres and throwing in random ‘cool’ stuff for the heck of it wasn’t unique to Ultima – Wizardry quickly developed a taste for merging fantasy and sci-fi – but this was still pretty surprising at the time. Still, Ultima was simply another popular RPG until Ultima IV. Tabletop RPGs were taking a lot of flak from the moral minority at this point, up to and including being accused of promoting Satanism (magic, demons, all that good stuff ). PC RPGs were no different. Fed up with this, or so the story goes, Garriott decided to make Ultima IV about something unquestionably positive – the quest to become a better person. While there are monsters and dungeons, there’s no big cackling villain. Instead, winning means coming to embody the Eight Virtues of Truth, Honesty, Compassion, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Humility and Valor, to become the Avatar of Virtue; a symbol to look up to. This meant, for instance, not murdering peaceful creatures for their XP, or paying for goods with stolen gold.
This put Ultima on a fascinating path. Each new game not only offered a new engine, often stretching the limits of current PC power, but set about trying to tell a story that mattered. Having explored the Virtues in Ultima IV, Ultima V flips them. You return to Ultima’s world, Britannia, to find it under the control of a tyrant called Blackthorn, who is using the Virtues as weapons of moral absolutism. If you do not compassionately give half your income to charity, then you lose all of it. If you do not correctly support virtue, then you’re a heretic. It’s the
RPGs were taking flak, acc used of pr omoting Satanism
Avatar’s job to depose him and the three Shadowlords who have perverted his thinking.
Ultima VI is arguably the cleverest of the set. This time you’re recalled to find Britannia under siege by an army of demonic looking ‘gargoyles’ who are trying to destroy the Shrines of Virtue. Everyone, including ‘wise’ Lord British (cue hollow laughter from every Ultima player) wants you to sally forth and beat up these monsters. In practice, though, the whole story is an allegory for racism and the importance of communication – the gargoyles revealed to not be an evil species, but one with their own moral codes and sense of honour. Most importantly, they have a valid grudge against both Britannia and the Avatar – the quest in Ultima IV having destroyed their homeworld. The next two games would pick up on the ease with which religion can be subverted, and explore the idea of the ends justifying the means – the Avatar stuck on a world that he ultimately has to sacrifice in order to return home and deal with a bigger threat.
Ultima raised the bar of the types of stories RPGs could tell, and proved they could be about something. It didn’t hurt that, along with this, the series contributed heavily to the growing genre – advancing what was possible with every new game. Ultima VII in particular stood as proof that an RPG could look gorgeous without sacrificing detail, (as long as you could actually run it.) It brought dialogue trees and day/night NPC schedules to the series, and its simulation elements have yet to truly be bettered. Players could shear sheep, spin the wool into yarn and then weave it into cloth. Or combine flour and water to make dough, then cook it to make bread. The series proper sadly ended in shame in 1999, with Ultima IX:
Ascension, but Garriott is currently working on what he hopes to be a return to the series’ high points – Shroud of the Avatar, coming out soon.
ltima VI: The False Prophet rakkhen